WILLMAR — The Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission has had a front row seat to the challenges and hardship the coronavirus pandemic has brought to businesses and non-profits across the county. And since late March 2020 the EDC has also been in the driver's seat of several financial relief programs, helping those businesses hang on.

"I am proud of the organization in terms of what we are trying to do to help businesses survive this rough patch," said Aaron Backman, EDC executive director.

Backman and Connie Schmoll, EDC business development manager, gave an update on the EDC's COVID response to the Joint Powers Board on Thursday.

"It has been a year like no other," Backman said.

By the time Kandiyohi County will mark the first anniversary of the first COVID case in April, Backman believes the EDC would have helped distribute approximately $4.5 million in grants and loans to impacted businesses. The vast majority of the money, $3.5 million in federal CARES Act dollars and another $852,000 from the state's latest coronavirus relief bill, was transferred to the EDC from the county, cities and townships. Some money came from the EDC's own reserves, while the Willmar Area Community Foundation and the Southwest Initiative Foundation also contributed money.

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"That is a significant amount no matter how you cook it," Backman said.

The first relief program created by the EDC was the COVID-19 Business Assistance Loan Program, which provided zero interest loans to eligible businesses. The EDC loaned out $137,500 of its own reserves.

"We were one of the first economic development commissions to have a program to help businesses," Backman said. "We had 29 different businesses who took advantage of that loan program."

The EDC also created a couple of smaller grant programs, aimed at home child care providers and immigrant-owned businesses.

Using $25,000 from reserves, along with a $5,000 contribution from the Willmar Area Community Foundation, the EDC cut $325 checks to 88 home-based child care providers in the county.

"We wanted to help every single home provider in the county at least receive something," Backman said.

While the grants were small, they were very much appreciated.

"We got a lot of wonderful thank yous, even little notes from children," Schmoll said.

The Immigrant Business Disaster Relief Grant Program distributed approximately $18,000 from SWIF to immigrant-owned businesses negatively impacted by the pandemic business shutdowns. Schmoll said it took outreach and in-person visits to get some of the business owners to trust the EDC program, especially those in the Asian community. However, once the first checks arrived to those businesses that first signed up, more immigrant businesses came forward.

"We did develop some great relationships through them," Schmoll said.

The largest program by far has been the CARES Pandemic Relief grant program. With $3.5 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act contributions the EDC was able to distribute grants to 232 businesses and 38 nonprofits. While the majority of the businesses and nonprofits were based in Willmar, grants were awarded to organizations in 10 different cities and 17 townships across the county.

"I was pleased with that," Backman said.

The grant program not only provided needed assistance to small businesses across the county, but it also expanded the EDC's knowledge of the county's businesses.

"There were several we go to know that I didn't even know existed out there," like fireworks manufacture Precocious Pyrotechnics of Belgrade and Roostin' Ridge Woodworks of Atwater, Backman said.

The businesses helped by the CPR program employ approximately 1,100 people in Kandiyohi County and have been in business an average of 14 years.

"There were a lot of businesses that have been around for a long time that were feeling the effects of this," Backman said. "The average (revenue) loss for the second quarter was 60 percent. That weighs on people."

The most recent grant program is the Minnesota Pandemic Relief Grant Program, using funds from the state's coronavirus relief bill passed in December. The county received $831,645 from the state to be turned into grants for eligible businesses. The deadline for the program is Feb. 17.

"The county really emphasized they want the money to get out really quickly," Backman said.

All the work the EDC has been able to do this year wouldn't have been possible without the EDC Finance committee, made up of seven local banking professionals. They reviewed and recommended the approval of hundreds of grants and loans over the past several months.

"In eight months they met 27 times," Backman said. "I want to thank them for their efforts."

It also wouldn't have been possible without the trust Willmar and Kandiyohi County put in the EDC staff to do the work that was needed.

"I want to thank in particular Kandiyohi County and the City of Willmar for having faith in our organization, that we could administer these programs in a good, thoughtful and efficient matter," Backman said.